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How Non-Rich People Can Graduate College Without Crippling Debt

I can't count how many roundtable discussions I've heard asking whether college is still worth the cost. They are important debates; college can be expensive. But most leave out an important point: There is more than one way to go to college.

I graduated college in 2008, and think I have a pretty good grasp of the challenges today's new grads face. The biggest reason I see so many young people getting frustrated with college isn't necessarily the cost. It's that they're doing college wrong. 

Tradition says you graduate high school at age 18 and head straight to a university. I've found that less than 30% of 18-year-olds are emotionally prepared for college, and a smaller percentage have a reasonable idea about what they want to do for a career.

This sets legions of new students on a devastating path: Start college at age 18 studying your childhood dream. Change your major at age 19 when you realize it requires too much math. Change it again at age 20 when you encounter a mean professor, and once more at 21 to match your boyfriend's class schedule. Eventually stick with a major at 23, graduate at 24, and at 26, finally figure out what you really want to do for a career, which invariably has no relation to your degree. 

I see this over and over again. In the end, college becomes a six-year self-discovery journey -- a worthy cause, but not one most people can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on.

The other problem I see in the "is college worth it?" debate is that all schools are lumped into one category called "college." That's wrong. There are four types of undergraduate colleges in America:

  • Community/junior
  • State four-year
  • Private four-year
  • For-profit

These are very different institutions offering very different services at wildly different prices. Picking which one is right for you -- or mixing and matching at the right times -- is one of the most important decisions you'll make in your college career.

I can't offer individual advice, because everyone has different goals, backgrounds, and financial means. What worked for me might not work for you, and what works for you might not work for someone else.

But if I had to come up with a blanket college plan for the average non-rich American graduating high school, it would look like this.

1. Don't start college right away. Get a job and see what the real world looks like.
One of life's cruel ironies is that people's confidence in how well they think they understand the world peaks at age 18. Eighteen-year-olds are unshakably certain about what they want out of life, what kind of career they want, and how they plan on getting there. Some truly have this down; most don't. I can count on one hand the number of 18-year-olds I've met who were ready to make rational decisions about their career path. 

So, after you graduate high school, get a job. It'll probably be low pay for menial, boring work. That's fine. You're young. See what working 40 hours a week feels like. See what paying bills feels like. Learn what dealing with a boss is like, how to talk to customers, how to file taxes, and what your co-workers' lives are like. Take a road trip. You'll learn more than you can imagine doing this. Do it for a couple years, and the combination of aging and working will give you a better sense of what you want to do for a career than you had when you were 18.

2. Go to a community college for two years
No matter what you major in, you're going to need a bunch of general-ed requirements -- a course in basic writing, some level of math, natural sciences, humanities, and maybe a foreign language. 

Get these out of the way at an accredited local community college. Most offer an adequate level of education at a rock-bottom price. Take Orange Coast College, one of the largest community colleges in California. Classes cost $46 per credit, which is less than $150 for a typical semester-long class. A full courseload will set you back $750 per semester -- let's call it $2,500 a year with books and other fees (this varies by state). Maybe you still need to borrow for this. That's fine; it's still a fraction of the cost of four-year schools.

Keep working throughout this period. I heard so many people say, "I can't work and go to school at the same time." Yes, you can. What you can't do is work, go to school, and have the social life of Paris Hilton. You might have to stay up late studying and wake up early to go to work. Welcome to the real world. The 20-year-old you who borrows tens of thousands of dollars to play beer pong five hours a day is despised by the 30-year-old you who has to accept a horrible job to pay it back. 

3. Transfer to a state college
Once you have a real-world sense of what you want to do for a career, transfer to a state college to finish your degree. I found transfer students had a stigma, which made no sense to me; they were often the most responsible and prepared students I met. And no one looking at your resume ever needs to know you transferred. If you go to a community college for two years and then transfer to UCLA, your diploma will be from UCLA.

Most states have public universities that offer first-class educations at a fraction the price of private schools. Private schools can be wonderful if you have rich parents or a scholarship. For everyone else, grasp reality with both hands. For reasons I don't fully comprehend, the same people who understand why they can't afford a Ferrari think it's reasonable to attend Swarthmore. Accepting the reality of your financial situation will save you tens of thousands of dollars. 

Pick a degree that you are both interested in and can provide the income you desire to be happy. If I picked a major based solely on what I found the most interesting, I would have studied military history or something. But there's not much hope for a career in that field, so I chose a major I found interesting and (I hoped) offered marketable job skills. This isn't abandoning your dream. I read a lot of military history books today. But one of the main reasons people think college isn't worth the cost is because they major in something they find fascinating (or easy), but that ultimately makes them no more employable than when they began. That's an expensive choice.

Keep working during this period. Network like crazy, and intern in whatever field you're heading into. You're about to enter one of the most competitive job markets of all time. Find a way to set yourself apart. 

Maybe you disagree with all of this. That's fine -- this is just my perspective. But most people should be able to follow a similar path and obtain a bachelor's degree without a crippling debt load. When I hear horror stories about people graduating college with $120,000 in debt, I think two things: 1) That's unfortunate, and 2) you did it wrong.

Good luck. 

No Pitch

Read/Post Comments (83) | Recommend This Article (207)

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  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 12:49 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    You should read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, David and Goliath, if you have not already, and you should interview him if possible.

    To add to what you say here, and beyond cost (to value), one of his major points is that going to a top school like Harvard can actually be a detriment, that students who would be in the bottom third at Harvard (but who would be at the top 10% at the University of Maryland) may in fact do worse in life if they attend Harvard than if they had attended U. Maryland, and at least be far less likely to enter, say, a science-related field. It is fascinating and deeply resonates with what I have long intuited (so maybe it's confirmation bias). He also takes on class size (no evidence that class sizes of 15 are any better than class sizes of 25, e.g.) and many other issues.

    I am about 2/3 through it and loving it. I realize Malcom Gladwell has an idiosyncratic writing style that is mock-worthy, and I am not a huge fan of a couple of his earlier books, but I am loving this one.

    Finally, I also think the book has great lessons for investors. It correlates perfectly with ideas expressed here, which you have espoused as well, and which I certainly believe are true, that an individual dumb money investor (David) has certain advantages that Goliath mutual fund managers do not have. Strongly recommended.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:07 PM, patriot4971 wrote:

    Great article Morgan. I know at least 3 people who are highly successful in their field, who chose the Community College to State college to Post Graduate studies route, while gaining experience in the real world. I wish more people would choose this path rather than get themselves and their parents in debt. Additional route is to go to a trade school or technical training, get a job and then use some of the employer programs to offset some college tuition costs.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:15 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    Malcolm Gladwell - ugh.

    Intellectually dishonest pop scientist who pulls facts out of his butt. If David and Goliath is like his other books, don't waste your time.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:17 PM, RxPro wrote:

    These are some great points, parents and students alike need to look at these because even if the parents were wealthy and able to pay $120,000 for their childrens' college, it simply isn't worth it when they could follow your advice and pay for a community college, and possibly save themselves a fortune when their kid changes majors twice, or have a nice chunk of change left over to help their offspring get started.

    However, I will say that this article is completely missing an aspect of education that has been extremely important recently and in times to come: GRADUATE SCHOOL.

    As a doctorate graduate myself, I stacked up almost a hefty chunk of debt, despite escaping undergraduate debt free (mainly because I worked 20-30hrs per week and got as many scholarships as possible). Graduate school is what separates the rich (or military) from the poor. Like you said, If you cant afford a ferrari, you can't afford most graduate programs. A 4 year doctorate like mine would cost a minimum of $100k at one of the state schools in tuition alone, or $200k+ in a private school.

    I can't think of any way around this besides recommending the military for students without wealthy families who can drop $200k to give them a better degree. To tell less wealthy families to avoid grad school altogether would not be the right answer either.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:31 PM, TMFBane wrote:

    Nice piece, Morgan!

    These are interesting ideas for parents to consider. My son Maxim is now 15, so this is an issue we’re thinking about a lot at the moment.

    Here are some honest reactions to your ideas. I really like the plan you’ve laid out, but I suspect it’d work best for a mature, self-directed young adult. As a parent, I’d worry about my son taking a year or two off before heading to college. Will he retain his math and writing skills? Will he read books? Will he party too much? My son just had a two-and-half-week break for the holidays, and I swear he’s forgotten everything he’s ever learned. :) Seriously though, the hiatus after high school has its dangers from the perspective of a parent. I agree, though, that playing beer pong at State U isn’t exactly a safer alternative.

    I do agree, though, that taking on a lot of debt is crazy. One thing I’m definitely learning right now is that the market for colleges is even more inefficient than the one for stocks. From what I’m seeing, I think it’s possible to go to a great school for a reasonable amount of money per year – the trick is that it takes a quite a lot of work to identify those schools. For example, Reed College in Oregon (where Steve Jobs attended for a while) is fairly affordable once you take into account the amount of aid they provide.

    Finally, I’ll state the obvious: each kid is different. Some are studious and some are not. Some are self-directed and some need a ton of support. I think it’s important for parents and teachers to help each kid find the right path for them. You laid out a great path that would be ideal for some kids, I think, though maybe not all of them.

    Thanks the thought-provoking piece!

    John Reeves

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:35 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Thanks for the comments, John.

    <<Will he retain his math and writing skills? Will he read books? Will he party too much?>>

    I'd add: If he would party too much and not read books outside of college, he'll probably do the same while in college and spending thousands of dollars in tuition.


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:51 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    I get the critiques of Malcolm Gladwell. I myself have previously leveled them. But for perspective, his books have never been intended to be mathematical proofs of the various ideas he promulgates. Rather, he provides interesting different perspectives on the world. They are food for thought, not a guide for life, and they are not intended to be the latter. That said, to me David and Goliath rises to a higher level. I did not even finish Blink, for example. This one I would not have bought, but was given, and I will likely finish it in two workdays, just reading it in the evenings.

    I also find the label "pop scientist" to be facile. Most of the time it is leveled at someone, it is leveled either by: 1) scientists/social scientists who do not know how to write or convey any idea in a way that more than 1000 people in the world can understand; and 2) by people who listen to these people and parrot their views as a means of signalling (like bright blue plumes on a peacock) to the world how smart they are. Every book and every idea should be evaluated on its merits, not based on such reactions, even if they were to prior books by the same author.

    The reality is, a huge percentage of all articles and books that touch on social science, whether in a professional journal, or in a magazine, or online, or in a book, are meaningless claptrap dressed up with lots of jargon, which do not prove anything and fail to use statistics properly. They are pseudo-authoritative and only half-disguise a goal of selling the author's biases and/or half-baked ideas as reality. And even where they say something useful, they look at a tiny sliver of reality and fail to put their conclusions in context. It is a generally disgusting and frustrating field to anyone who cares about facts. (At his worst, Malcom Gladwell falls into this trap, but at least unlike the professors who criticize him, he can write in a way that makes a topic interesting.) Thus you get people arguing that we all live and will in the future live in Urban Tribes of friends -- because they do. You get people arguing that it's a great thing that people are having children in their 40s -- because that's when they had theirs. You get a zillion click-bait articles in the Atlantic Monthly about what it means to be a good mother, etc, etc.

    But this book is good.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 1:56 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Agree with TDM. If Gladwell is a pop scientist, most scientists are junk writers. He's not trying to win the Nobel prize; he's trying to write engaging and well-written books, and he's one of the best of all time at it.


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 4:03 PM, devoish wrote:

    Great job of pointing out how many articles lump all colleges together. It is also a weakness of articles lumping mean, median and average.

    Of course, I do have a couple of issues with the article. Starting with baiting us with an affordable degree and switching us to 46k in debt.

    "Get these out of the way at an accredited local community college. Most offer an adequate level of education at a rock-bottom price. Take Orange Coast College, one of the largest community colleges in California. Classes cost $46 per credit, which is less than $150 for a typical semester-long class. A full courseload will set you back $750 per semester -- let's call it $2,500 a year with books and other fees (this varies by state). Maybe you still need to borrow for this. That's fine; it's still a fraction of the cost of four-year schools." - Morgan

    OK - that's a good plan, borrowing less and all, but then the plan, and the budget, changes.

    "Once you have a real-world sense of what you want to do for a career, transfer to a state college to finish your degree. I found transfer students had a stigma, which made no sense to me; they were often the most responsible and prepared students I met. And no one looking at your resume ever needs to know you transferred. If you go to a community college for two years and then transfer to UCLA, your diploma will be from UCLA". - Morgan

    Two years of UCLA, as a Ca resident living with Mom, is $46,000. If you had to borrow for a $2500 Community College, you might have just graduated with a fraction of the debt of a "4 year" school, but usually that phrase infers a much smaller fraction.

    The graduate should thank his lucky stars the ACA included legislation that limits the amount a college borrower has to pay back to under 10% of their income, because otherwise your friend the banker would be piling on late fees and rolling unpaid interest into principle while you spend time as an unpaid intern.

    I also have issue with this;

    "So, after you graduate high school, get a job. It'll probably be low pay for menial, boring work. That's fine. You're young. See what working 40 hours a week feels like."

    People in those jobs are not keeping their heads above water today. They are slowly sinking into debt, not avoiding it.

    I also do not accept the underlying assumption that education is only a self financed job training program that subsidizes your future employers training costs at the students risk.

    Best wishes,


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 4:13 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    <<Two years of UCLA, as a Ca resident living with Mom, is $46,000.>>

    Tuition and books is $28,000 for two years:

    By comparison, tuition and books down the road at private USC is $98,000 for two years:

    I don't include housing/transportation costs in the cost of college because you'd incur those whether you go to school or not.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 4:18 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    To reiterate, two years of general eds at USC cost $98,000. Two years of general eds at OCC cost $2,500.

    Not understanding this calculation is a lot why people think college is too expensive.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 4:30 PM, TMFBane wrote:

    I think it gets even more complicated, however. A lot of "customers" rarely pay the tuition that is actually listed on the website. An expensive college might offer a lot of aid, while a medium priced one might offer very little aid. Parents and students must then make choices on based imperfect information. I vaguely recall from my undergrad econ that universities are "perfect" monopolies -- they try to determine the optimal price for each customer (one-by-one) in order to maximize their overall revenue. Apparently, there is a move towards set pricing, however (ie. this is the price that you'll pay, period.)

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:16 PM, GambitX3X wrote:

    Not so easy to transfer/where is the person going to get the money to transfer? You don't pay rock bottom prices anymore. Community college to a school like UCLA is unheard of unless the student is exceptional. More complicated then this article makes it out to be. Summer internships can accomplish what it's like working 40hrs/dealing with a boss etc. but i agree with the year off journey - wish i did this.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:19 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    <<Community college to a school like UCLA is unheard of unless the student is exceptional.>>

    That's just not true. 5,290 transfer students enrolled at UCLA last year. 4,916 came from community colleges.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:25 PM, simeonguyhiggins wrote:

    Today, the reason to go to college is to get a certificate (diploma) that says, "This person has learned enough in this particular area to satisfy us (the college) that he/she can actually apply his/her expertise to creating value." Any other reason is nonsense because if what you want is to learn something and the certification of that learning isn't important, then just go online and and learn for free. I do it all the time. I recently took a course through from Dr Scott Page (U of MI) on Model Thinking -- a great course. I learned a lot. Lots of schools including big name brick & mortar universities offer free online classes.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:32 PM, scitracker wrote:

    I would also recommend consideration of graduating high school and joining the National Guard. Most states offer tuition benefits for guardsmen and women and you also get great training, serve your country and have a super part-time job. Military training, education and skills can also set you apart from your peers who dabbled in drinks, drugs and parties while also racking up student loan debt.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:35 PM, mfn1927 wrote:

    Good article - Unfortunately, most HS grads want to be with their HS "friends" & they follow one another to college and the 6 yeear plan, graduating and going on to working at what they didn't think they would be doing or enjoying achievements.

    Been there, done that with family members who are now entertaining grad school as a chance to get into a real career - others are back to school for med, law. What a waste of time & money those first years of college are.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:37 PM, LRM wrote:

    I see no mention of joining the U.S. Military and then using the G.I Bill.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:40 PM, xetn wrote:

    You can also clep out many under grad classes, so you receive credit, but not the expense.

    Also, many kids should not go to college in the first place. Taking Morgan's advice and get a job out of high school is a very good idea. (The minimum wage may price many HS grads out of a job as it has already,)

    Also, going to a trade school can also provide a very good income and a great avenue to owning your own business.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:50 PM, rplieu wrote:

    I really appreciate this article primarily because it makes the suggestion that college can be done in different ways, depending on the persona and their financial resources. I think knowing this, parents may be able to do a lot of prepare and help guide their kids to make the right decision, and perhaps be accepting when a traditional path isn't right for their child. My daughter is only 5 but it's never too early ...

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:50 PM, susie907 wrote:

    Community College is a great alternative. My son is going there right now. It was not my first choice; he went there to follow a girlfriend (of course they broke up) But it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Cheap and convenient. He will finish at a state university.

    To me, one of the advantages of a "name" university is the contacts/network that one can develop. I am of the opinion that often is it not what you know etc.

    So if he had applied and gotten accepted to, say, Harvard, I would have gladly helped him pay the freight. Have not read the newest Gladwell, but will.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 5:51 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    TMFBane, you are right, it is more complicated, but the article is a general guide, and is especially useful for those in the solid middle class of family incomes, with good but not spectacular scores. I.e., for a huge proportion of those applying.

    If your family income is low and you can get in, the Ivy League (and some other schools that have matched the policy) becomes an excellent value, because chances are you can go for free or nearly for free. When I went to an Ivy League school in the late 1990s, I graduated with only about $22K in student loans (all long since paid off). I'd say more than 70% of my "tuition" was scholarship money. (I also did work-study.) It was literally cheaper than going to the University of Michigan, for example, where I was also admitted. And if I went today, it would be free, because my family was so po'. The only place that was a better deal that I applied to was my own local state university, because they gave me a free ride. But I figured, rightly or wrongly, that $22K for an Ivy League school was a decent trade for that.

    Many schools also offer massive amounts of scholarships to minorities. USC is actually known for this. If you are Hispanic or black and you got above a 2100+ or so on the SATs with equivalent grades, there is a pretty good chance you can go to USC (or one of many other similar schools) either for free or at a fat discount.

    Lots of schools also offer free or severely discounted rides to kids with with high scores/grades, regardless of race or family income. Score above maybe 2300 on the SATs today with great grades and activities, and you will find many top-50 schools that will let you go for free, even if your family makes $1 million a year and your name is Bennington McWaspison III: you will raise their rankings in U.S. News by attending, and they pay for that.

    So the question is what to do if your family is financially quite sound (let's say, depending upon where you live, $60K to $100K/year income), but not so rich that your parents can simply afford to pay for your college from savings or income, and you scored only OK/good on the SATs and did only OK/good in high school, such that you aren't going to get much if any financial aid either.

    Then, this is a pretty decent plan, which is to say, it is for probably the vast majority of people thinking about college.

    (Of course, there is always also ROTC or Annapolis/Military academy.)

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:08 PM, GatorTrekE wrote:


    I like your columns and I like the premise of this one as well. However (you knew there would be a however), I'm curious as to where you came up with the 30% number? I'm sure I'm picking nits but my problem with including such a number is that it adds a level of precision to something that is really unknowable on a personal level (unless you've personally surveyed students on the topic) which is how the number is presented.

    Here's why this presents an issue with me. I try to read articles with a level of skepticism, evaluating the information and how it is presented, judging what I can judge to determine how valid the rest of the information presented might be. When I read something that comes across as unknowable to such a precise level, I start to question the rest of the article. JMO.

    All that said, I do agree with the premise of your article. College has changed over the past few decades and the approach to a college level education has to change as well if you expect to get through it without becoming an indentured servant.


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:31 PM, WillCarp3 wrote:

    This article really doesn't address the different situations that each person is in, and only takes the outlook of one individual. I went to a community college for the first two years, but in order to support myself I also had to work. Most classes were in the evening. For my major, a substantial amount were not offered in the evening at the state college, and in order to keep working and go to school, I went to a private school so that I had evening classes.

    This added up to a lot of cost, and it was in no way cheap. I had excellent grades, and no matter how may scholarships I applied for, I never received any. I never received a grant, and because of my age, I was still forced to use my parents income for the FASFA, so this reduced the possibility of receiving help from the school, even though I supported myself, and not as if my mother would be able to help anyways.

    I think its good that you have a manner in which to support your own personal opinion of what you think people do wrong going to college, but I find it difficult to believe that you have the ability to place yourself any another's situation.

    I have substantially been doing things for myself since I was 15 when my father died, my mother didn't make a lot of money, and no way was I getting help for college. I worked my way through to live, not to pay for school. I did what was necessary, and I have student loans because of it, and it is higher than the national average.

    Do you think I did something wrong because of what I did? How about the time I was working two jobs without a day off for 3 months straight (literally) and 18 hours of school, was there something I did wrong with that? Not to mention the fact that I graduated with a 3.6 GPA, while working the entire time. There wasn't an "experience" for me that you claim many seek while in college.

    While I understand all of this is just a difference of opinion, I think that putting college and the cost thereof into a finite point of view and to say that all others did something wrong if it doesn't fit into what you see is distasteful, and to be quite honest, disrespectful.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:43 PM, LeeG3 wrote:

    As an older, now retired type, let me bring up one thing that promoted going to college right after college for my generation, THE DRAFT! If you took any time off between high school and college, you were immediately drafted. Whether you failed the physical or not was the only thing that would allow you take that break between HS and college.

    So the average male of my generation did not have the ability to do as Morgan advises. That setup the whole idea of having to go directly to college from HS was normal. For most of the women, college was for finding a husband before they were too "old" and if you got an education, that was a bonus. (Sorry to the feminists, but in the early 60's that was the main objective for many women right out of HS.)

    On a more personal note, it took me the first year of college to figure out how to study. I don't think that taking a year or two off would have helped me learn that ability. I was in the right major. I don't think anything except failing at my first attempt at college would have forced me to figure out what I need to do to succeed. I did work part-time during the school year and full time during the summer to pay for half of the tuition so just working instead of going to school would not have helped me.

    Bottom line, everyone is different. You need to figure out what works for you.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:46 PM, cmalek wrote:

    For once I agree with Morgan.

    Graduate HS. Get a job. Go to a Community College. Transfer to a 4 year college. Graduate. Sounds like a sensible plan.

    My older daughter is doing things a bit backwards. She went to a 4 year private college for two plus years. Ran into some problems. Came home and now is going to a community college.

    My younger daughter is completing her first semester at a 4 year state school. We visited about 15 colleges with her, some prestigious, some run of the mill. Because of her SAT scores and her grades the private school she had her heart set on offered her a 50% across the board scholarship right of the bat. However, that was all they were willing to give her. The state school gave her only a $500 scholarship. But even with that little amount of aid, the state college is thousands of dollars less expensive then the private one with the big scholarship. In addition, the state school is 50 miles away while the private one would have been 500 miles away.

    One big reason for HS graduates going straight to college is that the HS guidance councelors are pushing kids to do that. When we mentioned the community college to four year college path to my daughter's councelor, she gave us a song and dance about how our daughter will feel alienated and left out, yada, yada, yada, if she does not go straight to college because "all her friends are going to college right away." This attitude on the part of HS adminstrators and personnel is fostered by the fact that state and federal aid to schools is based on the graduation rate AND the rate at which the graduates go on to college. So an inherent conflict of interest exists for HS guidance councelors. They should be guiding the kids to do what is best for the kids but instead they are guiding the kids to do what is best for the school.

    BTW Morgan - I am jealous that OCC charges only $46/credit. In New York State a full time (at least 12 credits) community college student pays a tuition of around $3500/semester.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:47 PM, cruise27 wrote:

    Nice article Mr. Housel . It gives me a better understanding of what kids are dealing with and some options. However, how did you come up with? "I've found that less than 30% of 18-year-olds are emotionally prepared for college..." thanks.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:50 PM, TheDumbMoney wrote:

    I'll give a more concrete example. I'm a lawyer at a "Big Firm." A friend I work with is four years younger/behind me in class year. He is very financially astute and grew up fairly well-off, with parents who owned a small business (they are now retired). He went to community college for his first two years, then transferred to UCLA for the remainder of college, and has a UCLA degree. He is four years junior to me, but we are otherwise at the same firm on the same payscale. For the purposes of the work we do, which is not rocket science admittedly, he is just as smart as I am.

    What matters is who you are, not where you go to college, and it is very appropriate to seek value. In fact, as explained in the Gladwell book, going to a stretch college (whether for any given person the stretch is Columbia, or Oberlin, or UC Santa Barbara) might actually be an impediment to one's development. That is one thing if you get a good price-value anyway, as I did, but quite another if you are also taking out tons of student loans to do it as well.

    There is no one-size-fits all approach though. If you are the kind of person who will think you are stupid and do worse because your high school peers mock you for going to community college first, you probably shouldn't do it. (Which raises the possibility that it may not always be the best idea to go to a college prep high school that is a stretch academically, where you will absolutely be mocked for going to a community college.) My friend at work is not like that. He could not have cared less. I admire him a great deal.

    I think college is like everything else, like investing, for example: one pays a high price for one's insecurity about oneself, for one's fear, and for buying a luxury brand, while those with steel stomachs and a disdain for (arguably) unnecessary luxury are often financially rewarded.

    Now I have officially said too much on this thread, though I haven't commented much lately on Morgan's or anyone else's articles, so I'll sign off!

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 6:51 PM, mtb297 wrote:

    Morgan is a genius -- except for the use of the English language. He has succumbed to the barbarism "graduated" college and "graduated" high school. In the old days --and I am old-- "graduated" was an intransitive verb. Through the use of non literati the verb may now be classified as transitive. But that is a barbarism accepted because of its misuse by idiots. Please, Morgan, "graduated from"

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 7:02 PM, TheRealRacc wrote:

    Along Morgan's underlying theme: 18-years old is the new 15. Twenty-one is the new 18. I overspent for college and regret it every day.

    We're all pop scientists at heart.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 7:12 PM, maman123 wrote:

    Thanks, Morgan. An Interesting article if all you want from college is trade school i.e. career preparation.

    However, there may be other reasons for going to college. For starters, how about four years of reading great stuff you will never have time to read once you enter the world of work. How about four years to learn to think critically, consider opinions of those with whom you may disagree, or take classes that will do nothing but introduce you to a subject or field about which you know nothing.

    My degree in philosophy provided no specific preparation for any of the careers I have chosen but it did teach me how to think, to consider rather than reacting: a skill which has served me well.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 7:39 PM, TMFGemHunter wrote:

    Interesting article. I agree with the sentiment that a lot of people rack up more debt than is sensible for a college education. If it's really a choice between paying full freight at a somewhat prestigious college and paying in-state tuition for your state university, you're almost certainly better off with the public school... and perhaps with community college for the first two years.

    However, I think a good number of people price themselves out of the college market through not understanding how financial aid works. If you come from a family earning less than $100K and can get into a top-tier school, you are likely to get a significant scholarship. (If your family earns less than $60-$70K, you have a good shot at a free ride at these schools.)

    The most prestigious colleges/universities tend to have huge endowments, which allows them to offer much more generous financial aid than middle of the pack schools. Swarthmore was name-dropped here, but it's actually up near the top in terms of financial aid (I'm a Swarthmore graduate, so I'll admit that I'm biased.)

    In a hypothetical scenario here:, Swarthmore estimates that a family with annual income of $93K would be expected to contribute $8K per year. The rest of tuition, room, and board would be covered with grants (not loan), except for a small work/study component.

    If you can get into a top-notch private college/university, don't rule it out until you see the financial aid award! It may be a lot cheaper than you think based on the sticker price.


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 7:43 PM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Yep, totally agree Adam, although that was noted in the article: "Private schools can be wonderful if you have rich parents or a scholarship."

    Thanks for the great comments, all. Glad this got a debate going.


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 7:59 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    Gladwell can definitely write and I agree that he is a fun read for many. His style and use of statistics can be thought provoking but lose their weight when you realize how he manipulates the reader and cherry picks his samples.

    He takes the bizarre little oddity in psychology/economics/marketing that is not only counter intuitive, but is not representative of what usually happens. If it was honestly presented he probably wouldn't sell as many books.

    Even the well known 10,000 hour practice rule is a statistic that he reduces to a premise of "Is it practice or talent?" which is a complete oversimplification that doesn't account for a hundred other variables.

    Millions of people read this stuff and make decisions based on it - like holding their kid back in school (remember the hockey rule) or forcing them into 40 hours a week of violin practice.

    Thinking back to Freakonomics: Reduction in violent crime is due to legalized abortion - or is it the removal of lead from gasoline and house paint? You'll never prove either one so they give us the answer that is most shocking - abortion.

    Selling books and charging a $45,000 speaking fee is what it's about.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 8:07 PM, KayakerRW wrote:


    You make good points, and I encourage many of my students to consider the community college option instead of taking on too much debt.

    I worked for several years and saved money before starting my Masters degree, which was done during summer programs, thus allowing me to avoid going into debt. Also, the work experience (as well as a little more maturity) made the graduate experience much more valuable in every way.

    There are a few alternatives to your suggestions. Parents who are concerned about their kids taking a year or two off from school might encourage them to work full time and take a few classes at a nearby community college. They can save some of their money for future college costs, and after 2 years have at least one or two semesters’ worth of college credit; then spend 3 or 3 ½ years at a state school.

    Some private colleges offer free tuition to employees; I had one student who worked as a custodian full time at a private college and took classes for free. It took him more than 4 years to graduate, but he did so without significant debt, and he wasn’t partying excessively during that time.

    There are colleges that strive to make sure students have enough financial aid (including work-study programs) to afford their school; they don’t have well known athletic programs, but they have good teachers. Berea College is one that I am familiar with.

    College is more than just career prep, and the experiences and relationships from that time can be invaluable. Those experiences and relationships can be found at most colleges (some are harder to find value from than others), but for some, colleges are like weddings. There is this fantasy about the “perfect” college and the “perfect” wedding, and some people will pay too much to get both. The cost of a wedding doesn’t determine the quality of the marriage; and the cost of college doesn’t always determine the quality of education.

    I also like to have my students read an article about successful people who were rejected by their number one choice and had to attend a “lesser” college. Many of them think not attending their first choice helped make them more successful.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 8:37 PM, devoish wrote:

    I hope this formats correctly.

    University Tuition and Student Service Fees 12,692

    Health Insurance 1,530

    Books and Supplies 1,536

    Room and Board 4,470

    Transportation 1,815

    Personal 1,704

    Total Resident Budget $23,748

    Take out the 4470 room and board and for two years at UCLA I get $38,000, not $28000

    Best wishes,


  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 9:24 PM, QuandoInQuando wrote:

    Best article that I have ever seen on this subject. The most lame excuses that I have ever heard is "I could not go to college because my parents couldn't afford it".

    Get a job! Your best advice ever. Many employers prefer to hire college students. And when you graduate your work experience is a big plus.

    Before enrolling in a junior college, check with a professor in the senior college that you want to eventually attend and be sure as to which classes will actually transfer to the senior college. This is especially true in engineering. Math and science classes at many junior colleges are not rigorous enough for engineering. This I know from experience. (Often, the folks at the junior college do not have the correct information.)

    Many companies have a tuition reimbursement policy for full-time employees whereby they will pay for classes that pertain to their business. It took me 2 years to get through my senior year (Truth be told, I needed 8 years to get a BSEE.

    ) but my employer paid for 75% of the senior year tuition. I wish that I could have been smart enough to get that job earlier.

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 9:26 PM, wjcoffman wrote:

    I have 2 data points for sons entering college at 18:

    (1) Son 1 - attended major state university for 2 months and came home. Enrolled in community college (CC) and stopped going to class. Joined Americorp and lumber jacked for 2 months in Colorado, earning scholarship which paid for AA at same CC previously attended. Went to smaller state university and earned BS in philosophy. Job hunted for 3 months to no awhile (go figure). Currently enrolled in another major state university and 1/3 of the way towards earning degree in computer science.

    (2) Son 2 - attended same major university but for 3 yrs and 2 majors and no degree. Now enlisted in Air Force, delayed entry program and awaiting job opening (blows my mind that you can do that).

    I'm a huge fan of doing ANYTHING besides college after high school - job, military, see the world, whatever - to gain maturity and perspective. I have no idea why high school to college to job worked for my wife and I (and everyone I grew up with and co-workers my age) nearly 30 years ago.

    I can't say enough for Americorp and it's affect on my son!

    Thanks for another awesome article!

  • Report this Comment On January 08, 2014, at 9:53 PM, Taxman44035 wrote:

    50 yrs ago, I thought that this was a good idea! While all of my friends left for 4 yr schools I attended the local Community College. I never regreted the path. C.C. was smaller, easier to make friends and get help. Plus of course much cheaper!

    Guess what? After the first semester, here comes some of my high school classmates.. 2nd semester some more.

    Transferred to a 4 yr state school and graduated on time.

    Something I have not read is the income tax help. Assuming the parents make enough to pay taxes 2 yrs tuition at a C.C. could be reimbursed.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 12:17 AM, Tabathagucci wrote:

    On the fence about number 1, but do see how it could be beneficial. I did the community college thing and would COMPLETELY recommend it. Saved me a ton of money. I did not have rich parents but did have a sizeable scholarship to a private university. I also worked during colkege. even if it was 10 hours a week, it was something. Anyway, great advice. Now I just have to make enough money so my kid won't have to take the advice!

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 12:17 AM, Thror wrote:

    This piece of advice should be its own bullet point:

    "Pick a degree that you are both interested in and can provide the income you desire to be happy."

    So many people seem to be graduating today with degrees that either A) are in sectors that do not hire as many positions as there are graduates (saturation), or B) don't match the salary expectations they had when they started.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 4:55 AM, TMFHousel wrote:

    Thanks Stephen,

    Health insurance, transportation, and personal costs would all be incurred whether or not college is attended. It's not a cost of going to school any more than life insurance premiums are a cost of going to the movies.


  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 7:36 AM, VieuxCarre wrote:

    The one caveat is that if you go to a no name school, you better come out looking like you were the best student there. I went to an Ivy league school and was frankly a mediocre student. After college many doors still opened for me just based on the prestige of the school. Times may have changed as things generally seem more competitive now.

    Another thing to realize is that at top tier schools you make better contacts. A sad reality of our system is that many students at top tier schools are just the offspring of the wealthy and even sadder that these types often end up being very successful just based on their connections and proper pedigrees. A final plug is that I have run into a lot of people who went to state schools who had an inferiority complex about their educations and also those who never became very worldly, something that often happens when surrounded by elites. The flip side of this is that I have met many Ivy League grads who try and coast on the prestige of their college days when really, that benefit maxes out after the first post college job or grad school admission.

    When it comes to success, ultimately hard work trumps most obstacles but it would be naive to ignore the effect of educational branding and networking. If you are going to be the best student at Wharton and work on Wall Street,who cares about college debt. If you are going to be a mediocre student and can afford it, go to Harvard. If you are paying your own way, get a scholarship to a public ivy and make sure you end up at the top of your class. It all starts with an honest appraisal of who you are and what your goals are.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 8:16 AM, mikecart1 wrote:

    One of the benefits of college is the experience. If you either delay it so you are older than the rest of the students when you finally go, you may not have the same types of relationships. Also I think the % is low on those that skip school for a couple of years and still graduate from a top tier university. It is the same thing for those that want to go and get a Master's degree. If you don't do it right after undergrad, there is a low % chance you will ever get a Master's for 3 reasons:

    1) Life got in the way

    2) You've been out of school too long to remember half the stuff you did in undergrad

    3) You won't be able to make it work with your job that you now have

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 10:48 AM, TXObjectivist75 wrote:

    Great advice! And, coincidentally, about the exact same thing I told my 12 year old earlier this week when we talked about life after high school

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 11:56 AM, TMFPennyWise wrote:


    re: your article headline

    I hate it when people use 'graduate' in the transitive active sense. It pretty much screams 'illiterate' to me.Your use is particularly vexing given your subject matter.

    The misuse of 'graduate' is a pet peeve of mine and I just have to speak up when it shows up on a MF headline.

    The standard use for 'graduate' as a verb is 'graduate from' or 'was graduated'.

    In addition to your headline example, here's another example of how NOT to use the verb 'graduate' in a sentence:

    Example: Our new employee graduated Newberry College.

    Here is the more acceptable format: Our new employee graduated from Newberry College.

    The American Heritage dictionary considers the first usage substandard, noting that 77 percent of its usage panel finds the transitive active use of to graduate unacceptable. Albeit there are some dictionaries that accept the transitive active as standard, but I'm sure they are reluctant to do so.

    I'm betting David Gardner as an English Lit major would cringe if he saw that headline too.

    Just had to share my 2 cents.


  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 12:14 PM, Chontichajim wrote:

    In our training as "CASA" volunteers we are told to discourage foster youth from going into heavy debt for a bachelors degree. This should be true for anyone of zero or limited family means. Unless there is a full scholarship start at Community College. Once a person has a Bachelor's degree if they want to pursue professional/graduate study they are better able to make an informed decision on how much debt to take on.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 12:22 PM, TMFCQuader wrote:

    Thank you Morgan for posting this! I went to college and had a very unusual situation.....but I ended up with little to no debt at all. I guess you could say I was "lucky".....if you can even call it that.

    But that being said, one of the best advice I can give upcoming college students is scholarships! Sign up and fill out every single scholarship application that you find! Most high school counselors have set up a scholarship resource area just for juniors and seniors where they have all of the local/state/national scholarships. You never know what you may be missing out on.

    You can find other scholarships by going to I found quite a few of them that way!

    And take a look at the college you are applying to/got accepted for. Many of them have scholarship opportunities as well! I applied for the Presedential Scholarship at Randolph-Macon and that nearly paid for my first year (tuition, room and board).

    And, if you can, work part time while you are in high school....when your schedule is predictable. The more money you can get saved up to help with items such as books and supplies will help immensely in the long run :).

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 12:43 PM, blackiechouteau wrote:

    My daughter went to a CC for two years and then to a state university where she graduated cum laude. My son also went to a CC and then to work. Everyone I know, including some colleagues, who went the same route, graduated debt free and now have jobs.

    I went to a state school, graduated and then went on to the Air Force. After the military I went to grad school for a PhD thanks to the GI Bill and a teaching fellowship.

    The discussion so far has overlooked one glaring fact, cost! When I went to a state school in the 60s, tuition was a $100 a semester, books another $100, adding room and board brings it to $1200 a year or about $9000 in 2013 dollars. It was fairly easy back then to work and pay for most of your expenses without putting mom and dad in debt. In my case, I had a scholarship which paid for tuition and books. Each summer I worked and during the school year I had a work study job as a lab assistant. This pretty much covered all my expenses. Is it even possible today to work your way through school?

    Today's college costs and the resulting debt are a disaster both to the individual and the nation! I have no idea how to fix this! But I do know that saying no to an expensive school and going to a CC first and then onto a state college can help. If you worry that a degree from state U isn't as competitive as a degree from MIT or Harvard you are correct, but consider starting life debt free as opposed to $100,000 or more in debt. After a few years these distinctions tend to disappear. My state university PhD isn't nearly as prestigious as my colleague’s degrees from Princeton, Cal Tech, etc. but I'm still called doctor.

    When I was young I had to walk 20 miles uphill each way through deep snow to school every day. Sadly, for young people today life seems even tougher today with higher costs and fewer opportunities. Starting life in debt just makes it worse.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 1:40 PM, ZenNicolet wrote:

    The problem with the @-year/community college route is that you can't get the general ed classes that you need. And some of your core classes can't be enrolled in when you need them either. After waiting list after waiting some give up. And those who stick with it will have far longer than 2 years before they can move on to a four year college thanks to educational budget cuts. (In the gREAT state of California...personally speaking)

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 1:49 PM, FNM2013 wrote:

    Absolutely loved the article! The concept of vocational training is missing and should be a real consideration for the less academically inclined.

    I would enjoy an article about the insane financing machine for Higher education. Universities are essentially on the take from the State and Federal government thru mechanism such as student grant programs and artificial low interest student loans with loan guarantee programs. Politicians extol the benefits of higher education, and universities are not accountable for education outcomes, or there own need to “trim the fat”. YET they get special tax treatment and maintain massive endowments.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 2:40 PM, Geojockey wrote:

    120K in educational debt is INSANE, and NOT worth the price-PERIOD. What you've laid out was the defacto college pathway for kids graduating in the late '70s and early '80s in California. It took me 12 years to get my bachelors, because I was 28 before I settled on a pathway (science) that satisfied both my curiosity and my fears about finding decent paying work. I worked the entire time, usually taking a semester "off" (meaning I only took 3 credits to maintain my general ed qualifications) every other year out of economic necessity, and eventually graduated only 5K in debt. But what you say about working the entire time...not so sure. My grades took a permanent hit from working 40+ hours/week and that DID affect my job prospects (not so important with a business degree.) If I had to do it all over, I'd still go to community college for no longer than 3 years, transfer to a state college, and work no more than part time or not at all, and set a limit on how much debt I'd be willing to accumulate.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 2:49 PM, Geojockey wrote:

    Another pathway to take is through the military, but it's certainly not for everyone (it wouldn't have worked for me). I was on a bike ride with my friend and his stepbrother, and the stepbrother described how he knew he wanted to be a doctor, but couldn't afford it (and his grades weren't stellar). He enrolled in ROTC, got his BS first (I think) on his own and then finished medical school on the military's dime. There was a 7 year commitment to the Navy, but 4 years of that were spent as an intern and in additional medical training at hospitals. He also learned to FLY. In contrast, one of my community college buddies became a podiatrist, practiced for 12 years until med school was paid off, and quit to become a fireman because his take home pay was better. You go figure....

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 3:33 PM, kyleleeh wrote:

    I went from a community college to the CSU system rather the UC system. It costs about half as much and almost everyone in my upper division classes was a transfer student. If you have no money saved for college I would advise you avoid the UC schools all together. It makes no difference in the real world either, I have assistants that went to UC Davis and paid twice what I did for the same degree.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 3:40 PM, vidman81 wrote:

    Another problem with the community college route is that transfer students are not as aggressively recruited as seniors in high school. That leads to less financial aid. With the 'tuition discount rate' of college freshmen at 45% (WSJ May 2013), you may end up paying just as much for 2 years of community college plus 2 years of a big-name college.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 4:43 PM, douglee8 wrote:

    Parents should start saving and investing for their kids' education as soon as they're born, if not before.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 9:57 PM, TetsuUma wrote:

    Let's not forget the new G.I. Bill provides very generous college benefits. If you are willing to serve your country and put some sweat equity into your education, it's a very good option. I had the earlier Montgomery G.I. Bill and that, coupled with the Illinois Veteran's Grant, allowed me to graduate from a State college in Illinois with $0 debt. The new G.I. Bill is even better.

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 11:42 PM, Remibi wrote:

    Great piece,very practical and realistic for vast majority of younger adults aspiring for higher education.In the 1950s ,60s and even later, many medical students were older because worked first to save for medical education. Many were married and their spouses held jobs outside home to support each other financially. Gradually that changed, and debts seem to have skyrocketed. The longer the duration of training, the larger is the debt. It is not uncommon for a physician including specialists to have 250 to 50000 dollar of outstanding loans at graduation

  • Report this Comment On January 09, 2014, at 11:44 PM, Remibi wrote:

    I meant 250k to 500k debt.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 12:40 AM, kyleleeh wrote:


    There was no financial aid offered to freshmans that was not also availible to transfer students when I went to CSUS. If the transfer students didn't look into what finacial aid was availible then I would put that into Morgans "not doing it right" list.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 12:41 AM, kyleleeh wrote:

    * "you did it wrong" list

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 10:53 AM, ScottmFool wrote:

    There's so much to comment on in this article. Keeping it brief will be a challenge.

    1) About the only thing I take issue with is your first point: getting a job before going to college. Your point of view is a defensible one. However, the risk of taking a job without experiencing college is that the influx of cash (however relatively meager) from a job may cloud their judgement on what they want to do with the rest of their professional career, even though in the long run a career that requires a degree makes up for that by several magnitudes.

    As a father, if my offspring want to work part time in high school, I'll encourage it provide their grades don't suffer. That should give them a sufficient taste of a blue-collar job to keep them grounded.

    2) "Pick a degree that you are both interested in and can provide the income you desire to be happy." AMEN! This is not to say that you shouldn't "do what you love", but not everyone ends up being able to sustain themselves doing exclusively what they love to do. And, frankly, the people I've known that do only what they want to do are usually only able to sustain it by living off the sweat of those that do what they like (and are responsible).

    3) I went to a junior college. Then a 4-year university and graduated with a BSCS. I now work at a very well known tech company (a motley fool recommended stock :) ). I racked up some debt from school but paid it off in 4 years by living well under my means; I rented a room in a house even after I had no debts and a good income. I now own a home in a nice (and affluent) town with a wife and kid. That path worked for me :)

    4) that said, if my offspring are able to get into a Stanford/Northwestern/H/Y/P, if I can afford it I'll pay for it. But I'll still be one proud papa if its Berkeley instead...and better off financially.

    5) @RxPro "Graduate school is what separates the rich (or military) from the poor." Much too simplistic; there's much more that factors into the separation of rich and poor than what you state. Work ethic, intelligence and money are all huge factors in what separates the rich and the poor. And you don't need to have a graduate degree to be among the "rich".

    Looking at my own (large) extended family drives home the point. Just looking at my cousins that are close to my age, there's some correlation between growing up "rich" and being financially successful, but enough exceptions to show that intelligence and work ethic are greater factors.

    (I'm tempted to give you examples, but my family reads this site too, so describing my cousin's would likely give myself away :) )

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 12:13 PM, bamasaba wrote:

    Top tier private colleges are great and are worth the cost (Princeton, Harvard, Notre Dame, Wellesley, etc.). Most students don't pay sticker price for these schools anyway, but instead receive hefty financial aid packages. However, there are a lot of no-name private schools that absolutely fleece the students.

    The well-run state schools are awesome as well.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 12:28 PM, alchemist49 wrote:

    In some respects I feel that your article provides a reasonable approach to college for many individuals, particularly those who exit High School with no or limited direction in where they want to go in the future. But I do take issue with your recommendation that students take a year or two off to mature before continuing with their education. For students that are disciplined and motivated that may work. But if they are disciplined and motivated they probably already know what is their direction. For the rest of the student body, leaving to enter the working world will most likely prevent them from being exposed to the range of options that college life can provide while also presenting them with a different set of options that earning a paycheck may provide. In particular car loans, serious relationships and maybe parenthood. All of these can result in the student not returning to his higher education irregardless of what ever direction he found for himself.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 1:49 PM, gina31 wrote:

    I agree that the community college to undergrad route is beneficial to some students, but I am sad when I see parents forcing this on their children without exploring other options. There are benefits to going straight to undergrad and studying there all 4 years that can't be gained from cc.

    Also, many community colleges are not as inexpensive as cited in this article, and many colleges and universities are not forthcoming and transparent about what cc classes will transfer at all, and which will (or will not) fill certain gen ed requirements. Also, unless the student knows exactly what college or university he/she intends to transfer to, the student can't confirm in advance which classes will transfer and fill requirements. So a student may spend time and money taking a cc class only to discover that they must retake a similar class at university.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 1:59 PM, ckroman wrote:

    Great article. I've been preaching this to my kids since forever. Living at home and going to the CC is such a tough sell though to 18 year olds whose peers are all taking loans and heading out to, as my son says: "Start their real lives." Only thing I disagree with is full-time work for a year out of HS as 18 year olds get derailed with too much cash.

    Daughter: Bailed on private college and major after year 1. Finally took my advice to go to the CC and intern. (Like someone else noted, many of her friends who left for prestigious private schools have trickled back to the CC.) Worked 20 hours for 3 years at CC while in Honors program. (Bonus: Got to meet lots of friends working FT for min wage trying to pay off their pricey, but useless degrees.) Transferring to UC as science major at 22 next fall and applying for REU (research undergraduate exchange) opps (PAID stipend, travel, food) this summer. We can afford 2 years at UC so she will likely graduate debt-free (except for loan she took first year).

    Son: Did not exhibit much academic drive until senior year of HS so I knew he wouldn't make it in college and so I let the app process slide by. Freaked out when all his friends left for college. He's age 18 now at the CC, VERY motivated to transfer and excelling in his computer science major. (Keeps spreadsheets of all his grades!) He worked 18 months through HS and beginning of CC, then decided to quit and live off his savings to devote more time to learning programming in his free time.

    I am a huge fan of the four year "college experience," and comprehensive liberal arts education, having enjoyed and benefited from it immensely myself. But the ROI with loans just isn't there today for most. If you can afford it, and your child is focused and mature, by all means, do it! But, there are many, many paths to success in life. And it's not a race to the finish line!

    PS My husband took a gap year to study abroad after HS, came home, did his GEs at the CC, transferred to UC and got his doctorate. A gap year is SUCH a wonderful experience and can be a great pause after HS. Highly recommended for pretty much all types of kids!

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 2:07 PM, ckroman wrote:

    @gina31—I agree this is a downside of the CC experience. To transfer in two years, you need to start by definitely knowing your major and which school you are transferring to. (Most don't, so there are many kids on the 5 to 6 year CC plan, particularly if they aren't living at home and are working lots.) But again, when you look at the $$$ trade-off, wouldn't you rather have your student do the major switching at the CC then at university prices?

    If that transfer school is in-state, there are websites that clearly show articulation agreements. It gets murkier out-of-state, in my experience.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 2:49 PM, VAgasguy wrote:

    The headline for this article is grammatically incorrect. Although many people use the phrase,

    people do not "graduate college" just as they don't "go college."

    Students "graduate from college."

    For more see:

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 3:33 PM, cmalek wrote:


    I strongly disagree with you on work experince between HS and college. IMO, work experience would be very beneficial to HS graduates.

    1) Between my two daughters we visited 25+ colleges. The concensus among all the colleg admission personnel is that majority of students change their major at 3 times during their years in school. Conversely, very few students stick with the major they declared upon college admission, i.e. have a strong sense of direction.

    2) While working full time, I took couple of night courses at the local CC. The professors also taught the same courses during the day. The attendees of the night courses were all working full time during the day. The day attendees were kids straight out of HS. The performance and attitude differences between the two sets of students were night and day. (pun intended) In both of the night courses, we finished the syllabus in little over half a semester. The day courses barely manage to get through the syllabus. The attitude of the night students was "Give us more, more." The attitude of the day students was "I dare you to teach us something!" Granted all this is anecdotal. However, I don't think so. My wife also took night courses and her observations were similar to mine. From this anecdote I would infer that the night students, because they worked, had to pay for their own courses, had to support families, had to pay bills, recognized the value, if only monetary, of higher education. In other words, they were more mature.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 3:54 PM, cmalek wrote:


    "taking a job without experiencing college"

    College experience ain't all that it's cracked up to be. IMO, work experience before college makes one appreciate all the facets (especially the financial one) of the college experience all the more. When someone else is paying the bills, the "college experience" tends to center around having fun.

    Based on my observations, most people who go from HS straight into college, upon graduating from college are not prepared for cold, cruel world of gainful employment.

    If "the influx of cash (however relatively meager) from a job may cloud their judgement on what they want to do with the rest of their professional career"

    In that case, maybe college is not for them.

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 4:41 PM, rhc41 wrote:


    It's how I did it. Serve your country, and your country will be more than willing to spend tax payer dollars on your education.

    And you'll have one heluva resume note. I can go on an on and get preachy, but I'll stop :)

  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 6:31 PM, NozRydr wrote:


  • Report this Comment On January 10, 2014, at 8:47 PM, esotericevets wrote:

    Every next step can send you on another course. Steps taken in productive directions with full attention to accepting of all the serendipituous opportunities can work out well. You might end up a slumlord, an odd ball, a part of a loving family or who knows what, but most likely when you hear "I did it my way", it will resonate . Fear nought

    Find ought

    Fin .

  • Report this Comment On January 11, 2014, at 2:43 AM, enginear wrote:

    Great stuff Morgan!

    I've long argued that state schools and living at Mom & Dads house (like everyone did if they went to school more than 20 years ago) would solve a lot of these issues. Even they are expensive, but eight semesters will not leave you a lifetime of debt.

    What about the job we used to work too? I had about $2500 in 1973 to get me through 4 years... Even then it wasn't near enough, but somehow you have to muddle through

    There are many ways do 'do school'. If the cash is on hand(and the grades/motivation) go to Harvard. If you are a real person do what you need to.

    As the advice for investing always says: "learn to live within your means". No better time to learn that than when you go to school.

  • Report this Comment On January 11, 2014, at 5:11 PM, Libertarian71 wrote:

    This is a good article. it's rare that I agree with Morgan Housel on anything.

    One thing he omits, however, is WHY college is so expensive these days. It's because of governmental intervention in the market for higher education. By offering student loans, it provides incentives for schools to hike their tuition rates to astronomical levels, and even encourage the entry of for-profit schools.

    Years ago, prior to the federal student loan programs, it did not cost one an arm and a leg to attend college. One could afford tuition while working part time, and in the summer, even to attend private colleges. And one would not be saddled with enormous mounds of debt upon graduation, that would take 20-30 years to pay off.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 8:53 AM, Bujutsu wrote:

    Despite some comments above, it certainly is possible for someone to go to a community college and then transfer into a top ranked school.

    I took more than a year off after high school, went to a community college for two years, and then transferred into the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for the last two years. (Go Blue!)

    I saved a lot of money that way and I was a more well-rounded student because of it.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 10:27 AM, CMFSoloFool wrote:

    Generally good advice in this column. A few years ago I read "Debt-free U", a book written by Zac Bissonnette while he was an undergrad student in Mass. He advocates much the same strategy of 2 years community, 2 years state college. It works, and it does save a lot of money. The State schools accept transfers from community colleges because their enrollments at junior and senior years tend to decline significantly when freshmen realize after year 1 or 2 that they wasted their time and parent's money drinking beer and partying.

    Unfortunately our schools are more about business than education, and they are constantly looking for ways to take more of our money. They make a fortune on dorms, which are so ridiculously expensive at schools like UF, which is in the middle of nowhere. They make books that are specifically tied to their school edits, and their online access programs, and charge $200-300 per student for the book. To make it worse, each book is registered to the student (online access), so you can't even resell or give the book to another student after you're done. So add 2 or 3 of these books to your budget per

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 10:54 AM, CMFSoloFool wrote:

    Much along the same lines, I highly recommend reading "Debt-free U" by Zac Bissonnette. The idea of 2 years community college, and then 2 years state school is not new. State schools accept these transfers because by junior year enrollments decline significantly after freshmen and sophomores drop out.

    Unfortunately, most schools now are about business, much more so than education. They hike tuitions up to state regulated limits - 15% annually, and they rape the nation with exorbitant fees for applications, books, dorms, food, etc. Don't simply compare tuition, which is expensive, but look at the other expenses.

    Books are one of the biggest scams now. The colleges make "school specific" editions, and they bundle them with online access codes, which are registered to a specific student. They charge up to $300 per book, and you usually need 2 or 3 of these per semester. The kicker is you can't resell them when you're done because the code is registered to the original student. The book is worthless without the code, and not usable at any other school.

    Dorms are incredibly expensive. At UF, a shared 2-person single room, 300 sq. ft., with 2 beds and 2 desks, no bathroom, no kitchen, is $1000/student per month ($2000 per month for each room).

    Want a car while you're on campus? No problem! Parking in outer lots will cost you $200-300 per semester.

    Look at what it costs even just to apply and get accepted at college... The whole SAT industry, the SAT/ACT prep costs, the tutoring to pass a meaningless test meant to confound and trick students, but disguised as a test of readiness for college. All a big business scam by College Board and Princeton Review, Kaplan, and their ilk.

    This is where you, the parents, the students, have to be willing to do your homework, research, seek out options and alternatives. There is no free lunch, you will pay, but you can get a decent education at less cost and if you're lucky you can escape the colleges with a degree and little or no debt.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 1:13 PM, dwot wrote:

    I am reminded of when I spent 3 weeks in Costa Rica in 2007. I went to the coast for the weekend with three other students (I was taking Spanish out of interest, they were taking it for transfer to university credits). I ended up traveling by bus with the one woman who was keeping costs down. The other two, with about $100k of debt each, chose a travel option that was twice as expensive. Out of my 3 weeks in Costa Rica my per diem for daily costs was close to triple what it had been because they chose "expensive" restaurants, etc. They were not expensive relative to North American standards, but they were relative to all of the options available. The 3rd was trying to keep costs down, but her debt was still in the range of half of the other two. And then their spending money to buy things... The weekend with transportation, food and accommodations could have cost less then $100, but I am sure those two girls spent $500-600 each.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 5:58 PM, Homer17402 wrote:

    I followed this route. Did 2 years of community college and transferred to a state school. Got my undergrad degree for 3400 dollars in tuition. Granted it was late 1970s. I was in grad school with a guy who paid ten times that at Princeton. We both have the same job now with the exact same income.

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 10:25 PM, mtaylor619 wrote:

    If time is money, then this article should have factored that in. It is gross negligence and poor advice to suggest that students will enroll at a public university and be done in 4 years. What is more common is that the community college will take 3-4 years for a two year degree(due to over enrollments). Then when they transfer to the 4 year college, half the credits will not transfer and they end up taking an additional 4 years to finish. Based on your advice, they would be 28 before they finish the BS. 28 with 3 kids, renting, and finally starting a career. Don't mess with people's lives like that.

    Some private schools can promise a more timely graduation and a better education. If you graduate at 22, you will have 4 years of income and experience on your resume that the 28 year old does not have. Additionally, you now have a pretty good idea what you want to get your master's degree in, which brings the third point. Forget terminal education. Education is lifelong unless you want to be obsolete in 6 years or less.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2014, at 12:17 PM, Teo123 wrote:

    I am very late in commenting because I only saw this weak article in reference to the headline story today about the middle class early retirement plan.

    Here is my candid response to Morgan's article. This is bad advice. It's the classic one-size-fits-all approach that the Fool itself rejects.

    1. Every 18 year old kid is different. For some, community college for two years may work out in that they may get their core curriculum courses done with and they can finish at the local land grant university. For others -- many others (judging by the community college's own data on graduation rates) -- community college is a place to hang around kids who don't take college seriously. The end result could be disastrous, with kids not passing class or otherwise screwing around in class and not getting accepted to enroll in said land grant university.

    2. The notion that working at the local coffee hut for a year to see what the real world is like is questionable at best. Again, for some 18 year old kids, working at this job (or another similar service-industry job that an 18 year old could get) may shine a light and they may be able to think about what they want to do. For others, it may be an opportunity cost, as they will be making close to minimum wage while forgetting their reading/writing/arithmetic skills.

    3. As for the idea of transferring to a state college, this is not a horrible idea, but it depends on the state college. I mean, if it's Berkeley or UVA or Michigan, this may work out just fine. The schools have very strong academics that will get the student ready for life out here. If it's a public school from another power conference (i.e. Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, SEC) the brand of the university will assist the student for decades to come. If it's not -- if it's XYZ State -- I really think that this is bad advice. Where you attend college plays a major role in all of your future endeavors. Whether it's for networking to get your next job or it's drafting a writing sample or it's applying to graduate school, your undergraduate school is huge. Don't waste the opportunity.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2015, at 10:20 AM, grad999 wrote:

    Simple, basic, common sense. This is the same "plan" I followed in the 1970's. It applied then, and it applies today. Somewhere along the way, high school students began to see a college degree as an entitlement that someone else (parents or taxpayers) should give to them; or they "Foolishly" and without considering future consequences load up with debt and a few years down the road, wonder what happened.

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